Felix Salmon

Time’s weird web strategy

By Felix Salmon
July 7, 2010

Josh Tyrangiel became arguably the most sought-after editor of his generation by boosting Time.com’s pageviews from 400 million to 1.8 billion within three years, and by successfully transforming a bunch of grizzled old magazine journalists into web-speed multimedia content producers:

“Getting Time magazine to be a daily operation? It required me to be my most charming, scheming and belligerent.”

Now that Tyrangiel has left to BusinessWeek, however, Time seems determined to roll back all of his achievements:

We’ve said for awhile that increasingly we’ll move content from the print (and now iPad) versions of our titles off of the web… Our strategy is to use the web for breaking news and ‘commodity’ type of news; (news events of any type, stock prices, sports scores) and keep (most of) the features and longer analysis for the print publication and iPad versions.

If the 1990s saw news organizations set up massive parallel online operations, then, and the 2000s saw the integration of the online operations with the legacy operations, then is this the beginning of the 2010s backswing, where the two become bifurcated again?

My guess is that the answer is no, and that this is just a case of Time making a tactical decision which makes no strategic sense. It wants to sell lots of copies of its iPad edition at $5 a pop, but it’s only putting the magazine content into the app, if all of that can be read on the iPad for free just by firing up the web browser, it fears that sensible consumers won’t bother. So rather than improve the iPad app and make it worth the money, Time is artificially crippling its website.

So long as the iPad app remains broken, however, this idea is doomed to fail. People read the magazine in one of two ways: either they subscribe, at a significant discount to the cover price, or else they buy the magazine at a newsstand, where they have the opportunity to browse through it first. Neither is possible on the iPad, which sells issues only one at a time, and which gives no tasters of what’s inside, just headlines. (The app does have some good free content, if you find the hidden button in the bottom right hand corner, but it’s exactly the same free content that’s available on the website.)

My guess is that none of this would have happened had Tyrangiel stayed at Time, but that once he left, the heart of the website that he helped to build was doomed. It won’t be long, I’m sure, before Time’s journalists settle happily back into their weekly routine, and the website is left to a very different team of people, producing very different content. Which is clearly not a sustainable model.

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